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Minnesota’s Immigrant Populations: Past and Present

Historically, Minnesota has been an immigration state.


The first peoples living in the region now known as Minnesota were members of diverse Native American tribes who settled in the area as long ago as 6000 B.C.  The Ojibway and Dakota, the largest tribes living in Minnesota in the early and mid-nineteenth century, both had well-established societies based on hunting and gathering when the first French and French Canadian traders arrived to establish fur posts among them.


By 1850, many settlers from New England as well as immigrants from Norway, Sweden, Ireland, and Germany had settled in Minnesota.  Drawn by the lure of inexpensive farmland and a growing industrial base, diverse groups continued to migrate to Minnesota, and by 1896, official election instructions were being issued in nine languages: English, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, French, Czech, Italian, and Polish.


Minnesota became a significant immigration state as a result of the wave of immigration to the United States at the turn of the century.  While the foreign-born population in the United States was only 15% in the 1890s, 40% of Minnesota’s population was foreign born.  This first major wave of immigration to Minnesota peaked around 1910, when more than 60% of the immigrants came from Sweden, Norway, and Germany.


Today’s Immigrants to Minnesota

Another wave of immigration to Minnesota, which began after the Vietnam War, marked a change in the ethnic makeup of Minnesota’s immigrant populations.  This wave peaked in the 1980s when hundreds of refugees from Southeast Asia, aided by local churches, were resettled in Minnesota communities. Minnesota’s ethnic mix—originally comprised of Native Americans, African Americans, and immigrants from diverse Western European countries—was now further enriched by new populations primarily from Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe.


Today, even though only 5.1% of Minnesota’s population is foreign born (which is half the national average), the state remains a destination for immigrants and refugees. Each year international immigration brings around 7,000 people to Minnesota and according to the 2000 Census, there are 260,463 foreign born residents living in the state. The current immigrant populations in Minnesota are growing in number and diversity.  Consider the following statistics:


· The Minnesota Planning Office of the State Demographer estimates that more than 40,000 refugees live in Minnesota. On average, the state admits around 3,000 refugees a year, and, in 1996, 42.2% of all Minnesota immigrants came as refugees.  Most refugees are coming from the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  Federal, state, and community agencies give these estimates of Minnesota’s largest refugee populations*:

Hmong                            41,800-60,000

Vietnamese                     18,800

Somali                                        22,000-28,000

Cambodian                       5,500-10,000

Laotian                            10,000

Former Soviet Republics    7,000


*Estimates include U.S.-born children and refugees resettled in other states who subsequently moved to Minnesota.


According to the 2000 Census, 143,382 members of the Chicano/Latino population live in Minnesota.      


· At least 18,000, and probably as many as 48,000, undocumented workers labor in the hospitality, industrial, agricultural, and meat-processing industries in Minnesota.


· According to reports from the Hmong and Somali communities, Minnesota is home to the largest Hmong and the largest Somali population in the United States.


· More than 55 languages were spoken by students in Minneapolis Public Schools during the 2000-2001 academic year. Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning estimates that more than 56,000 students in Minnesota’s public schools speak a language other than English at home.


· A record number of 1,500 immigrants from about 100 countries became U.S. citizens in Minnesota on June 28, 2001.  Part of a nationwide increase in naturalization, immigrants are increasingly settling in and enriching Minnesota communities with their economic and cultural contributions.




Collins, Terry. “It was Minnesota’s Biggest Day,” Star Tribune,  June 28, 2001


Holmquist, June Drenning.  They Chose Minnesota,  Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981


Kielkopf, James J. “The Economic Impact of Undocumented Workers in Minnesota,” HACER, 2000


Leslie, Lourdes Medrano.  “Minnesota Welcomes Record Number of New Americans,” Star Tribune, July 1, 1999


Nelson, Todd. “New Americans Bring New Record,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, June 28, 2001


Minneapolis Public Schools, 2001


MN Department of Health, Refugee Health Program 2002


MN Planning/Office of the State Demographer, 1996/2000


MN Department of Human Services, Refugee &  Immigrant Services 2000


U.S. Census Bureau, 2000



Revised 6/2002